I ran across a short article the other day contrasting Joel Osteen's book It's Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God's Favor with Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. This past Sunday afternoon I decided to peruse their offerings: each of them offer an introductory chapter on the web and each has video presentations available on iTunes. At the end of the afternoon I have to tell you, it was as if I had been living in parallel alternative universes as I read or listened to first Osteen, then Ehrenreich. Certainly you would not think that they both lived in the same country at the same time.
In my own years away from God and from the church, one of the things I did was to participate in the personal development movement as a training consultant and distributor for the Phoenix Seminar on the Psychology of Achievement by Brian Tracy. Brian Tracy was a powerful advocate for The Law of Attraction, which Ehrenreich dismisses as pseudoscience. But based on my own experience I can say that Osteen, Tracy and Ehrenreich all give us some of the truth and also ignore some truth. The Law of Attraction works: you do attract into your life the kind of people and results that you think about or focus on. The year I focused exclusively on monetary success while using the Phoenix Seminar in my business, I earned a quarter of a million dollars. The Law of Attraction, however, is not all powerful. After that year of working seventy to eighty hour weeks away from home, I decided that having no friends, a bad relationship, no outside interests and ever larger dust bunnies at home wasn't worth that kind of focus on monetary success, and, consequently, I have not earned that much money in a given year since. But the next year was also a year that the economy was tanking in New England, and people weren't hiring training consultants any more. Which was cause and which was effect?
The Law of Attraction did not actually control the recession then or now. That is the truth that Osteen and Tracy ignore. Osteen's new book apparently counsels "patience," but his essential message that God wants you to have material wealth has not dimmed.
Ehrenreich takes on Osteen as a target in her book, because she talked to people who were gulled in the subprime mortgage fiasco, and are ashamed to say so, because it not only means that they were foolish, but that they don't believe enough in the way that Osteen tells people that they must believe. Ehrenreich is quick to say she's not a sourpuss, and is not a pessimist, but she wants people to be realistic and understand that magical thinking is not the answer. Ignoring reality is what got us into the current economic mess and Ehrenreich is convinced (and convincing) that magical thinking will not get us out.
There’s a difference between being willing to take on really difficult things and being overly optimistic. I’ve taken on many things that turned out to be extremely difficult. I didn’t take them on feeling, 'Oh, I’m going to ace this.' I took them on thinking I was just going to do my damnedest, whether it was some sort of outdoor adventure or an intellectual task. That’s a very different spirit. It’s not, 'I’m going to win because I know I’m going to win because I’m wonderful and God loves me so much.' It’s thinking 'This is so important, I’m going to die trying.'
Now in my internet wanderings in the same afternoon I also came across Open University Courses at Yale University and Dr. Christine Hayes has this to say in her introductory lecture about the Hebrew Bible:
The Bible abounds with human not superhuman beings, and their behavior can be scandalous. It can be violent, it can be rebellious, outrageous, lewd, vicious. But at the same time like real people, they can turn around and act in a way that is loyal and true above and beyond the call of duty. They can change, they can grow. But it's interesting to me that there are many people who, when they open the Bible for the first time, they close it in shock and disgust. Jacob is a deceiver; Joseph is an arrogant, spoiled brat; Judah reneges on his obligations to his daughter-in-law and goes off and sleeps with a prostitute. …
The subject matter in the Bible is very adult, particularly in the narrative texts. There are episodes of treachery and incest and murder and rape. And the Bible is not for naïve optimists. It's hard-hitting stuff. And it speaks to those who are courageous enough to acknowledge that life is rife with pain and conflict, just as it's filled with compassion and joy.
In contrast Osteen starts his sermon with this creed:
(from ITunes Podcast Joel Osteen #442: Silencing the Voice of the Accuser)
Hold up your Bible, say it like you mean it: This is my Bible, I am what it says I am, I have what it says I have, I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive, I will never be the same. In Jesus' name.
Hm, well … In fact, I would imagine that in the audience of 38,000 people listening to Osteen, that if the Bible says that someone is treacherous, a rapist, or a thief, that Osteen is correct in having people say "I am what the Bible says I am." Odds are that someone is treacherous, etc. Yet I suspect that he never identifies any of his audience in those texts, if he ever preaches on the texts about how we are enmeshed in conflict, pain and deceit.
I think that, oddly enough, it is Ehrenreich, who is not a preacher, who may be pointing us to something similar to Jesus' Third Way: thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, meaning that we have an obligation not to expect the kingdom just to appear, but to make God's kingdom real here on this earth—and to make something real requires being realistic. Of course, I would love to wave a magic wand and make it happen, but I'm quite sure that there are no magic wands giving us our every desire in the Bible and in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom."
The real question is what motivates us to do the work of the kingdom, and what do we learn or understand the work of the kingdom to be? Does Jesus ask us to be rich? I don't find that text in the Bible. Rather Jesus asks us to care for the hungry, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, those in prison.
One of the techniques used in personal development seminars is to have you write your own obituary or epitaph. What would you like people to remember about you and your life?
Also in my wanderings this week, I came across this musical answer to that question by Country Music Award winner Martina McBride (check out Amazon's offer to get a free mp3 download by CMA winners—this was my choice).
(composed by James Slater)
In my daughter's eyes I am a hero
I am strong and wise and I know no fear
But the truth is plain to see
She was sent to rescue me
I see who I wanna be
In my daughter's eyes
In my daughter's eyes everyone is equal
Darkness turns to light and the
world is at peace
This miracle God gave to me gives me
strength when I am weak
I find reason to believe
In my daughter's eyes
And when she wraps her hand
around my finger
Oh it puts a smile in my heart
Everything becomes a little clearer
I realize what life is all about
It's hangin' on when your heart
has had enough
It's giving more when you feel like giving up
I've seen the light
It's in my daughter's eyes
In my daughter's eyes I can see the future
A reflection of who I am and what will be
Though she'll grow and someday leave
Maybe raise a family
When I'm gone I hope you see how happy
she made me
For I'll be there
In my daughter's eyes